Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

04/16/2010 (3:09 am)

I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: Is the New Testament True?

idhefcoverbigIt was just before Thanksgiving that I last updated this ongoing project of blogging the seminar, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. I had just finished the last of a three-part discussion of miracles, which is relevant to the discussion because deciding which of the theistic religions is the true one requires that one accept the possibility that God has, in fact, acted in our 3-dimensional-plus-time world, and that we humans can detect it if He has.

The argument of the seminar goes like this: (1) Truth can be determined by reason and investigation; (2) Reason and investigation prove to us that God exists, and tell us some of His/Her/Its necessary characteristics; (3) If God acts in our universe, it is possible for us to detect it; and (4) God has, in fact, acted in our universe in such a way as to identify which of the theistic religions is the true one. To put it more simply:

  1. Does truth exist?
  2. Does God Exist?
  3. Are miracles possible?
  4. Is the New Testament true?

Here, for the record, are the links to the earlier posts in this series, in case you would like to review any part of it. So far, I have established:

  • that there’s a need for explaining why Christianity is the most reasonable position for an educated, skeptical individual to take (see the post here);
  • that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here);
  • that using the Cosmological Argument, the scientific fact that our universe had a beginning establishes that something like a Theistic God must exist (see the post here);
  • that using the Teleological Argument, the anthropic principle establishes that the universe was designed for life, which requires a designer something like a Theistic God (see the post here);
  • that using the Moral Argument, the fact that we all recognize that some things are more morally acceptable than others requires that a universal moral standard exists outside of ourselves, requiring a moral God (see the post here);
  • that the summation of the Cosmological, Teleological, and Moral arguments gives us a composite picture of what the theistic God must be like, and that that composite picture is remarkably similar to the God of the Christian Bible, but not quite similar enough for a positive ID (see the post here);
  • that if God exists, then miracles are neither impossible nor disproved nor violations of nature (see the post here);
  • that Hume’s objection that we can never accept any event as a miracle proves too much, and leaves us questioning every event in history (see the post here);
  • that context determines when an event should be called a miracle, and that God uses miracles for signs, but also for anything that effects our redemption (see the post here.)

Now it is time to begin to examine the specific evidence that God has created in human history to enable us to know which of the theistic religions is the correct one. There is no particular reason, so far in the argument, to imagine that God must have provided such evidence. However, it does seem consistent with some of the things we’ve said so far. For example, we determined from examining the Teleological Argument that God is intelligent and has a purpose for what He/She/It creates, and from the Moral Argument that God cares about our behavior and is personal. So it seems reasonable to expect that God has provided us the means to determine how best to conform ourselves to His wishes.

Since the argument has established the likelihood of a Theistic God, we can exclude claims that do not fall into the set of theistic religions. The main, remaining candidates are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. From a logical standpoint it’s attractive to approach Judaism first, because if it turns out to be flat-out false, we’ve also ruled out Christianity. By the same token, proving Christianity true also proves Judaism true (albeit incomplete); Christianity presupposes the historical truth of Judaism.

I’ll make no bones: I choose to address Christianity first because I’m Christian, and it’s what I know best. However, Christianity also commends itself as a starting point because of convenience. Christianity contains historical claims that are testable, and about which a veritable flood of reliable data exists. This makes it comparatively easy to either confirm or dismiss. Islam makes very few claims about deity that are unique or testable; Judaism’s historical claims are lost in far antiquity. Christianity is by far the most historically testable theistic religion, and for that matter, the most historically testable religion of any stripe, because it makes a remarkable historical claim: Jesus proved Himself to be the Son of God by rising from the dead.

In this, Christianity is unique. It’s based solely on a single, historical event. If, in fact, the New Testament is historically accurate and contemporary to the events it reports, and if Jesus actually said what the New Testament writers claim He said about Himself, and if Jesus actually rose from the dead, then it appears virtually certain that Christianity is true.

That’s a lot of “ifs”, but they turn out to be at least partly testable “ifs.” Those “ifs” will be the focus of the rest of this series.

No part of my argument relies on any notion that the New Testament is “the Word of God” or any similar theological notion. I am going to be examining the New Testament documents — 27 separate writings by 9 separate authors — as historical documents. Accepting the New Testament as Holy Writ may be the outcome of the exercise, but it will not be one of the premises. Nor is the New Testament the only set of documents I’ll be discussing; but the gospel accounts and the letters of the Apostles contain most of the detail we know about Jesus and the events surrounding him, so they are central.

When examining New Testament writings as evidence, I have to establish first whether the English-language versions I use are trustworthy. After all, nobody thinks that the original manuscripts of any of the individual books of the New Testament (called by scholars “the Autographs”) have ever been found. One of the problems I hear most frequently when talking to non-Christians about Jesus is that the New Testament is a translation of a translation, a copy of a copy, and so far removed from the original documents that scholars have no idea whether what we’re reading is anything like what was written.

This is not an objection usually raised by scholars who are familiar with the subject, though. Historians of the ancient world know how unusual it is for the accuracy of a document to be as well supported as are the New Testament writings. There is not anything from the ancient world for which anywhere near the level of support exists as for the New Testament.

The following graphic illustrates why. It shows the New Testament compared against 7 works from the ancient world (represented by the names of the ancient authors) and reports two things about each work: how many copies or fragments historians have of the primary work, and how far removed the oldest copy is in years from the time the work was originally written. For example, if you’ll look at “Homer,” you’ll see that historians know of 643 copies or fragments of The Iliad by Homer, and that the earliest known copy is about 500 years removed from the time the stories were first written down. Homer’s work is the 2nd best-established work from the ancient world. More ordinary are works like The Republic by Plato, of which scholars have 7 ancient copies, the earliest dating from 1200 years after Plato lived.


Scholars know of more than 5000 New Testaments, either complete or fragments, from the ancient world, and one fragment dates from as little as 25 years after alleged date that the book was written of which the fragment was found (the John Rylands fragment, in the British Museum, is from John 18). That’s New Testaments in Greek, the language in which the books were first written. There are another 18,000 or so ancient copies in Syriac, Egyptian, or Latin. Beyond that, most of the New Testament appears in quotations written by various church fathers between 80 and about 200 years after the death of Jesus — so many, in fact, that if all the known New Testament manuscripts had been gathered up and burned (which the Roman Emperor Diocletian attempted in 300 AD.) scholars would have been able to reconstruct the entire New Testament from the letters of the church fathers, except for 11 verses. There is no shortage of manuscripts from which scholars can compare New Testament versions in order to determine the accuracy of the copies.

The accuracy is remarkable even for the culture in which they appeared. Uninformed critics like to harp on the fact that there are 200,000 variants in the existing New Testament manuscripts; that’s true because there are so many manuscripts, and is an indication of how well-supported the New Testament manuscripts are, not how poorly. More than 90% of these are mere variations in punctuation or spelling, and hardly any of the remaining variations affect even the meaning of the sentence in which they’re found, let alone bring into question any event or doctrine. Moreover, the sheer volume of manuscripts available for comparison leaves little doubt about the original construction of any passage.

An example of one of these variants appears in the account of Peter visiting the Centurion’s house in Acts chapter 10. Peter was praying on his roof one noontime, and received a vision. Verse 19 says “While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.” The marginal notes in the New American Standard version I use inserts a note by the word “three” that says, “One early mss reads ‘two’.” This is actually one of the more serious variants in the New Testament manuscripts; most are so insignificant they require no comment in translation, or they can be resolved easily because the bulk of the manuscripts agree and the variant occurs only a few times. This particular variant, relating a detail that could only have come from Peter himself, remains a question only because the one manuscript that says something different is a very old one. The variant brings into question only the number of visitors he expected to see when descended from the roof.

Moreover, comparison frequently allows scholars to identify where or when a variant occurred. To help you see why, let’s imagine a slightly modified game of “Telephone,” the game where somebody whispers a phrase into the ear of the person next to him, who whispers it to the next, and so forth around a circle of friends. The game should be modified to represent the transmission of texts in generations: one person whispers the phrase to two others, who each whisper it to two others, and so forth. After 4 generations, we have each person write down what they heard. I’ve illustrated below:


As you can see, six of the participants repeat exactly the same phrase, “Jesus is Lord.” Two, however, recite an assonant phrase, “Cheese is abhorred.” Is there any question what the original phrase was? Of course not; not only do we have a clear indication of the original phrase, we can actually pinpoint the repetition in which the error was introduced. The culprit has the profile of a little boy wearing a baseball cap, in generation 3 on the right. We know this because everybody who heard the repetition from him made exactly the same mistake.

In this manner, scholars can use particular errors along with locations and contextually inferred dates to produce histories of how the various manuscripts were reproduced. Neil Mammen of NoBlindFaith.com created an illustration that I’ve reproduced below, showing how scholars can infer the pedigree of copies of ancient documents like books of the New Testament.


Bruce Metzger, well-known New Testament documentarian from Princeton University, computes based on known manuscripts and variants that the textual reproduction of New Testament manuscripts in the ancient world was 99.5% accurate. This figure, which is higher than the accuracy of reproduction of other ancient documents, reflects the veneration of the copyists, and the care that they took in reproducing the words of the Apostles. Consequently, we can be sure that historical compilations of the New Testament texts are substantially faithful to the Autographs. There are enough manuscripts reproduced with sufficient accuracy to give scholars confidence that the texts in our hands do not vary from the Autographs in any substantial way. We do have to be careful to compare one modern translation against another to make sure we understand what the original writer meant by particular turns of phrase, and it is helpful to study what is known of the culture in which the Autographs were produced in order to interpret the author’s meaning as he intended it; but there exists no reasonable claim that the modern Bible is an inaccurate copy of the original.

Next time: how we know the New Testament is contemporary to the events it reports.

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1 Comment »

April 16, 2010 @ 9:10 pm #

“Christianity is by far the most historically testable theistic religion, and for that matter, the most historically testable religion of any stripe, because it makes a remarkable historical claim: Jesus proved Himself to be the Son of God by rising from the dead.”

Powerful statement. And backed with clear explanation.

As for the NT documents having only a 25 year time gap from the events. That alone should be impressive when compared with other ancient documents. But it gets even better when you consider smaller units within the NT.

The epistles have no gap in so far as they are letters current with their time of writing. And when Paul, for example, speaks of Christ’s resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 there is an acknowledged form, like a creed, employed indicating that he is quoting an even earlier church document or tradition. Scholars would date that reference in 1 Corinthians to within 5 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection. (That last particular point can be found in a number of books, but one very good one is William Lane Craig’s _Reasonable Faith_ third edition 2008, page 362.)

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